From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace.
Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give.
Have you ever entered into a holiday season or an anniversary hoping that the gift you got is at least as nice as the gift someone got you? We never want to be on the end of giving less than we get. It feels embarrassing or irresponsible. Conversely, if we’re on the other end, we can feel like we worked harder or sacrificed more or had greater generosity than someone else, leaving us feeling bitter or irritated.
Though sometimes for good and sometimes for ill, I do believe human beings have a strong sense of fairness as it involves daily relationships and situations. We want to know, "Am I getting as much as I’m giving in this relationship?" And additionally, I hear plenty of Christians ask the humble question, "Am I giving as much as I’m getting?"
Despite how commonplace it is, this sort of scorekeeping isn’t particularly helpful as we walk in faith with Jesus or in authentic relationships with other people.
Life and faith are not zero sum games. But because we are humans, we really want them to be. We especially want things to be balanced so that we never feel indebted to anyone or anything. That feels like weakness.
We need to stop spending all this energy trying to balance life as if it's a checkbook. Consider how this "balanced budget" approach often manifests itself in our faith:
I am living my life to try to repay Jesus for all that he has done for me.
Problem: That’s not living in grace. That’s living as if you hope one day you’ll look at Jesus and say “we’re all square, right?” That’s not how a loving relationship with God works. A healthy faith lives in an ever deepening pool of grace, leading us to rest in God’s goodness and live accordingly, not try to claw our way back out.
That person did something really kind for me, so I need to repay them for it.
Problem: No, You don’t. You need to receive it graciously and allow it to refresh your spirit. That’s it.
Of course, we can selfishly take this in the direction of, “nobody has done anything for me, so I’m not going to serve anyone,” but that’s clearly not a disciple's attitude. The more common challenge, especially these days, is pride in the opposite direction. You may not feel like you have much to give anyone else at this season in life, so you feel bad asking for help or receiving more than you're giving.
Jesus certainly talks about receiving much and giving much, but there’s never a tally. We can’t experience grace or become gracious if we are trying to track this stuff. Jesus simplifies it.
Freely you have received. Freely give.
How freeing is that?? (See what I did there?)
There is no tally. Life is about learning to give and receive because we have learned the power of grace. Sometimes we’re in need— emotionally, or physically— and it brings another person joy to be able to come alongside us in support. We should welcome that. And some times we notice another in need, and because we’ve received grace, we eagerly desire to show love and compassion and service to them. We don’t keep track of how many times this happens. We just do it. Some of you may have the capacity to be givers right now. You’re privileged during this pandemic, and although it's been brutal on everyone, it hasn’t been quite as brutal on you as some. It’s your season to give abundantly, without looking around and feeling like someone owes you something.
And some of you are going through the ringer right now. Crisis after crisis is hitting you. Finances are tight, or medical issues are constant. Maybe you’re breaking down because you’re completely on your own, or trying to parent, or trying to do virtual school, or anything in between. It’s your time to receive willingly…. maybe even ask for help, and not keep score. You just receive because you know that we all are in need of grace sometimes, and this is one of God’s ways of showing it to us.
Or maybe you aren’t even feeling like you’re in need, yet someone wants to serve, to help, to care. Perhaps it’s time to receive that with joy, so that the giver can also experience the joy of giving.
So what’s on tap for today? Giving of yourself in some new way because you can? Receiving love and care from others because they can? Resting in God’s grace?
It could be giving, it could be receiving. Just do it freely.
Jesus, teach me to live in and out of grace today, and experience the complete freedom of life with you.
We remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.
-Paul, 1 Thessalonians 1:3
I’m missing my cross country team today. When I started coaching 56 middle school cross country runners last fall, something fresh caught fire in my spirit. Perhaps it rekindled my love for teenagers from years of youth ministry before we planted a church. Maybe it was the chance to be outside helping kids discover a passion for running that has defined much of my life. I don’t know, but it was one of those things that just felt right. It’s a remarkable experience to encourage and then witness young people pushing themselves beyond what they thought they could do.
But this year, that’s not happening. So many things aren’t happening. We’ve moved well beyond the flash of our crisis. Now most of us are walking in this deep trough of a new reality, knowing that even when things change, it will still be slow. What felt like a quick sprint now feels like a marathon- but the worst type of marathon, because you’re not actually sure how many miles this race is. At times it can feel difficult to do anything more than just try to slog through it.
Last year, at the end of every practice and at the start of every race, I told my team this message:
You are more capable than you realize.
Over and over again, I told them that. Because we need to hear some things over and over again.
As Christ-followers who constantly fall prey to dualistic thinking, there are two extremes that we can move toward. We either think we’re amazing on our own (which usually proves false when crisis hits) or we believe that we are completely weak and live a very defeatist day to day reality when things are hard.
Our biblical identity transcends this duality. Humans are made in the imago dei, the image of God. We are amazing. We're also not God so we are weak. But because God’s image is in us, we are capable of far more good than we realize. And for those who seek to trust God, the Spirit of Christ dwells in us and empowers us in a divine partnership. We are empowered people. This is why we have so many stories during the early centuries of Christianity where disciples were able to joyfully suffer, even facing death with incredible hope, strength, and love.
Jesus’ message to his disciples was consistent throughout the gospels. You might feel weak, but you are more capable than you will ever realize, because you’re not alone.
You give them something to eat.
When you are arrested unjustly, don’t worry, for the Spirit will give you the words.
You will receive power when my holy spirit comes upon you.
I will be with you always.
The prophets often revealed the same message of Jesus:
But those who hope in God will renew their strength….they will run and not grow weary.
Yes, the feeling of weakness and exhaustion is so pervasive right now. But as people of faith, our identity is to live in faith. We are empowered by the breath of the very God of the universe, for whom death isn’t even an equal adversary. And according the scriptures, the same spirit that raised Jesus from the dead is in us. So it’s on us to decide if we’re going to live in that hope or not.
At the end of last season, one of my girls came up to me after her race, sweaty and exhausted. She was not one of our fastest runners. Near the back of the team in most races, she didn’t improve the way she had hoped most of the season. But this last race, she persevered so incredibly well, and it was her best effort all year.
She walked over to me with a huge smile, still catching her breath.
“Hey Coach….. I’m stronger than I realized.”
Yes. Yes you are.
And in Christ, in this season, WE are too. We are strong enough to keep loving others. We are strong enough to keep listening. We are strong enough to have compassion. We are strong enough to celebrate each other. We are strong enough to keep working for justice. We are strong enough to overcome our own destructive habits of thought and action. We are strong enough to keep walking forward. We are strong enough to resist bitterness and disdain. We are strong enough to be the best versions of ourselves when it hurts, because Jesus was the best version of himself when it hurt…. and he is in us. We are more capable than we realize, because we are in Christ, and Christ is in us. It will take a lifetime to fully grasp that simple truth.
Jesus, bring strength to my muscles and hope to my spirit, for You and I have work to do.
Live in harmony with each other. Don’t be too proud to enjoy the company of ordinary people. And don’t think you know it all!
-Romans 12:16 (NLT)
Today I’m thinking about harmony. For those that need the definition, harmony is most often used as a musical term where notes are played/sung that are different from the melody of a song. But rather than creating dissonance, they resonate with each other to create a fuller, richer sound.
I miss harmony. When I sing with others, I always choose the harmony lines, because I love creating that full sound- different notes, but moving together. We’re currently being cautious in our church gatherings, so even though we do offer spaced out in-person meetings in a large auditorium, we aren’t doing any singing there yet. We sing a few songs outside beforehand, which I am happy to be able to do, but we’re spread out so we can’t really hear the harmonies very well. One day those things will return, I am absolutely sure! But for now, harmony is rather rare.
So it is in life. Living in harmony with others seems increasingly rare, but it’s one of those challenging callings that is central for brothers and sisters in Christ as we follow Jesus. Most of the time when Paul was writing, he was writing to people inside the church, not outside. Once they learned to treat each other really well, then they’d be equipped to love the rest of the world too. So his simple instructions in the book of Romans to "live in harmony” here are specifically directed to God’s church.
Harmony in Paul's sort of way might be understood as “different types of individuals making space for each other and working toward the same ultimate goal.”
Our prophetic voice of critique has a place in the world. So does the Christian voice that freely notices what is good, beautiful, and valuable. Acknowledging how others add their unique contributions to God’s world is more important than ever. Like Paul said, we’ve got to be careful we don’t start thinking that we know it all!
Here’s one of my dirty little secrets. I have the ability to be pretty critical of people. It’s a real gift of mine, though I hide it well. And equally unsettling, if people know me at all, it’s not hard to notice and name my faults and deficiencies (to use a biblical reference, you might call them Legion, for they are many! Matt. 5:9). But when we look at each other in this moment of history when everyone's default is critique and comparison… the ability to live in harmony is tragically lost.
One of my practices lately has been to see and name the beauty that someone adds to the world. The way that they do that may be really different from me. But I am convinced that people following Jesus are indeed seeking to love God and love others as best they can. And sometimes, when we allow ourselves to look for that and name it, we find that there is newfound joy, partnership, and peace in our relationships. We don’t need to be the same in every way. We don’t need to have all the same specific priorities. But we can still recognize and work together toward the kingdom that Jesus invites us into. The more that I notice the beautiful notes that those around me add to the music, the more inspired I am to add my own.
Even the Church can be seen as a healthy model of unison and harmony. When we gather together (digitally or in person), we think about the same subject, share the same prayers, reflect on the same passages of scripture. But then we head out, breaking from unison and each using our unique gifts and skills to add beauty to the world, work for justice and compassion, pray boldly, and love our families and neighbors. We’ll each do it differently. Rather than seeing that as chaos, we can start to listen for the harmonies of God's people using their gifts in millions of unique ways to express God’s kingdom.
Of course, we shouldn’t expect perfect harmony. That is a fine goal, but the reality is that we’re all a little “pitchy” sometimes and we need to understand that. We all have days where the notes coming out of our mouths are a bit judgy. Our pride makes us less gracious with others, we are prone to complaining, or we just don't feel like singing at all. And sometimes, we'll just disagree and need to allow for that.
But Jesus will always be working in the midst of that, if we slow down enough to hear his voice and not push away. He’ll remind us, as Paul did, that we don’t know it all, and we are fortunate to have a community of different minds loving the same Jesus, practicing unity without demanding uniformity.
Harmony is beautiful. Everyone has something to offer to our world. Notice it and let it inspire you to keep composing alongside them.
Jesus, help me today to be more complimentary than critical as I look around. May it remind me of how broad and beautiful your kingdom is.
“You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.”
-Exodus 20:7 (NIV)
“You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain…" (the famous King James Version)
I still remember the comic routine from my teen years when a prominent comedian joked that after hearing his dad yell out “Jesus Christ!” over and over again for years, he started to think that was his brother’s given name.
Let’s talk about the way we use God’s name today.
The Ten Commandments still come up from time to time, but they are self-explanatory for the most part. It’s clear that we’re not supposed to steal things, or lie, or murder, or go after someone else’s spouse. And Jesus both simplified and encompassed all the commandments when he said that the greatest commandment is to love God with everything you’ve got, and to love your neighbor like yourself (see Matthew 22). When we do that, it covers everything. This is very true. Yet the heart of the commandments given to Moses on Mt. Sinai still have profound value for revealing God’s heart, if we explore them.
When I was a kid, I thought that the third commandment, the one about swearing, meant I should never say “Oh my God” or “Jesus Christ!” in place of a curse word. Now I’ll admit, I’m still not a fan of those phrases, but it wasn’t until a Hebrew class in college that I started to understand what this was really getting at, and why it’s much more important than simply avoiding a few specific words.
Misusing God’s name isn't about words. It’s about character. In Hebrew, to take one’s name is to take on/bear their character. Much like an ambassador of a country takes the name of their native land and represents its ideals to another land, Christians do the same to the world. We have taken the name of Christ as a part of our identity. In the New Testament, Peter writes that all those who bear the name of Christ are priests… representatives called to proclaim and represent God’s goodness. So taking a name is not about a phrase, but an identity. When we break it down, this commandment is about misrepresenting God’s character with our lives. Literally, this is the command:
Do not carry the reputation of God falsely.
Do not bear God’s name without integrity.
There’s no denying that we are in a season of seeing the misuse of God’s name and the misrepresentation of God’s character. This week the president of the largest Christian college in the country was ousted because of a breaking sex scandal and a host of other major controversies ranging from personal cruelty to racist attitudes to misuse of finances (these came as no surprise to many of us.) He hid behind the Christian label and intentionally did a lot of evil while talking about faith and Christian values all the time. He was bearing the reputation of God falsely.
We’re in campaign season again (are we ever not?) where we are seeing pseudo-Christian language by politicians suggesting that God’s Kingdom is synonymous with America. Friends, it’s not. God's kingdom is bigger, broader, more beautiful, and more peaceable than any country, including ours. When people try to claim that the Bible suggests America is more special than other countries, or link national allegiance and national interests with allegiance to Christ, they are bearing the name of God falsely.
But it’s easy to throw stones. Let’s explore where this touches our own internal lives.
Every time we Christians come across as hateful, uncaring, or arrogant… we are taking the Lord’s name in vain.
Every time we Christians use the Bible to reinforce our own agenda instead of the other way around, we bear the reputation of God falsely.
Every time we Christians act in our own interest while ignoring the fact that many are suffering around us, we are being dishonest about God’s character.
This is the truth, but it need not send us into despair. We’re all hypocrites on some level. My pastor growing up once said that what we should aspire to be, at least, is humble hypocrites. We can be humble about where we haven’t represented Jesus well… and in admitting this, ironically, we actually bear Jesus’ name with integrity once again. It’s not about perfection. It’s about truly doing our best to humbly represent God’s character in our world (for examples of that character, see Galatians 5:22).
Right now, it’s not hard to take the Lord's name in vain and misrepresent Jesus because we’re so upset or so tired or so entrenched in our ideological camp. But the voice of Jesus invites us back to integrity. The voice of Jesus invites us to humble repentance. The voice of Jesus invites us into grace and forgiveness and a Spirit-led life that offers people a glimpse of our infinitely beautiful God.
Friends, let’s together, everyday, commit to hold onto our discipleship. We have such incredible opportunities every day. People are noticing. We can be a breath of life, or another reason for folks to become cynical toward God’s love. Let’s test our words, priorities, and actions against the servant Christ, and keep them aligned. Let’s keep our eyes and heart on Jesus, and know that when we do, bearing his name can actually feel easy and light (Mt. 11:28-30).
Jesus, give me wisdom and maturity to bear your character with integrity today.